By Richard Gaines
---- — NOAA’s New England Fishery Management Council has deferred at least until November recommending deep reductions in next year’s allowable catch of most groundfish, a move that would constrict landings even further in an industry that has been declared a federal economic disaster from Maine to New York.
The declaration did not come with any assured aid from the Commerce Department, whose acting director found the fishery failure, but the finding opens the political door for possible financial aid of an undetermined amount and form.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell urged the council to move skeptically to reduce fishing and reminded the members of widespread doubt about the underlying science that shows weakened stocks of in- and off-shore cod and other stocks within the groundfish complex.
At its three-day meeting in Plymouth ending Thursday, the 18 members agreed to look carefully at — and perhaps recommend opening — the region’s three closed areas to limited and controlled commercial fishing next year to help mitigate the greater hardships to come.
The possible opening of the closed areas was one of a series of technical initiatives examined by the council for the looming hard times for the commercial fleets of Gloucester and other New England and New York fishing communities. Fishermen across the region face a possible shutdown of the inshore cod fishery next year, with implications that could keep most boats off the water, and deep cuts in off-shore stocks from 45 to 73 percent.
Two of the closed areas are at the east and western edges of Georges Bank; the other one, the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area is a thin rectangle, about 18 miles wide and 73 miles long, about 15 miles east of Cape Ann, and extending from just north of Cape Cod to the waters opposite Portland.
The areas were designated off limits many years ago to foster spawning and protect habitat.
Based on a benchmark Gulf of Maine cod assessment released last year and updated assessments of stocks on Georges, the Northeast groundfishery was declared a failure and disaster by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank on Sept. 13.
The decision came nearly 10 months after the filing for a fishery failure by Gov. Deval Patrick, and similar calls from New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The region’s congressional delegation has agreed to attempt to draft a $100 million disaster relief rider and affix it to a farm drought disaster bill during the lame duck session following the November elections.
The council agreed unanimously to have its staff further study the implications of allowing limited fishing in the closed areas and report back to the council at its November meeting when a formal vote could be taken. The expressed goal is to give fishermen operating in the catch share commodity market increased access to haddock, redfish, pollock and other stocks that are strong.
But Councilor David Goethel, a New Hampshire groundfisherman, said he did not believe allowing fishermen into the closed areas with certain gear at certain times would provide more than marginal relief.
”We have to fix the underlying problem, which is single species management,” he said in a telephone interview Friday.
While many fishermen see the opportunity to fish in closed areas as essential, influential nonprofits like Pew Environment Group and the Conservation Law Foundation, objected to the idea.
On the other hand, Environmental Defense Fund, which also exerts strong influence and is the driving force behind NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco’s catch share management program, supported the initiative.
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, urged the council to go through with the limited opening of the closed areas, which it described in an email to the Times Friday as a previously promised step to help the fishermen dealing with statutorily required hard catch limits, which took effect in 2010 and drove down the allocations of catch shares on virtually all stocks across the board.
”When the Northeast groundfish fishery transitioned to hard total allowable catches, it was understood the measures that continued to exist under the old mortality controls would be removed,” the coalition said in its email.
The decision on opening the closed areas to limited access by boats associated with the sectors, fishing cooperatives working in the catch share commodity market system, is reserved for the secretary of commerce, in practice NOAA administrator Lubchenco.
As vice chairwoman of the EDF board before her appointment by President Obama, Lubchenco has promoted the catch share management system as a way to make the fishery more efficient — through fleet consolidation, with fewer boats and corporations making more money. But she also has been a fierce advocate of marine protected areas — essentially no-fishing zones — to advance conservation goals.
The closed areas eyed by the council are effectively marine protected areas.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.